Monday, March 31, 2014

266. Review of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL (March 28, 2014)


If you live in Littleton, Colorado (home of Columbine High School), or Newtown, Connecticut (home of Sandy Hook Elementary School), boy, do I have a show for you! It’s called HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL and it’s all about this high school girl named Veronica who falls in love with J.D., a rebellious student in a long black coat, who’s so pissed at the world he thinks nothing of taking his dad’s Luger and blasting his fellow students, then placing a bomb in the school to finish all the other “assholes” off at once. But even without a high school boy on a serial killing rampage, the show has students practically waiting on line to commit suicide. And there’s also a girl who’s tricked into drinking drain cleaner.   

Front: Barrett Wilbert Weed; rear, from left: Evan Todd, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Jon Eidson. Photo: Chad Batka.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? That seems to have been the rip-roaring reaction of the audience attending the night I went, especially since the show is based on HEATHERS, a 1989 movie by Daniel Waters. This film, which introduced Wynona Ryder as Veronica and costarred Christian Slater as the evil boyfriend, has become something of a cult classic, with fans memorizing its juicier lines and waiting breathlessly for the show to repeat them. When someone says, “Well, fuck me gently with a chain saw,” or, “What? Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” you’d think the god of comedy itself was laughing joyfully, telling herself "how very" the show is.

Front: Barrett Wilbert Weed; rear, from left: Elle McLemore, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alice Lee. Photo: Chad Batka.
            This isn’t to say that HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL, at New World Stages, is badly done. It’s actually a highly professional show with lively (if inconsistently amusing) book, music, and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, energetic (if uneven) direction by Andy Fickman, and amusing (if repetitive) choreography by Marguerite Derricks.  Timothy R. Mackabee has created a colorful (if bland) unit set that serves for multiple locales, Jason Lyons has contributed inventive (if predictable) lighting, and Amy Clark has come up with vivid (if, in the case of J.D.'s coat, questionable) re-imaginings of 1989 high school clothing, down to the girls' scrunchies. But the show itself, for all its energy, slickness, and solid singing, is a tasteless and uncomfortable stew mingling homophobia, teenage sexual angst, eating disorders, school bullying, parental dysfunction, and educational mismanagement in a would-be satire of high school life that makes GREASE look like GYPSY by comparison.
            At least, the music in GREASE plays off the familiar styles and sounds of the period it's spoofing; the music in HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL is generic with nary a whiff of the sounds of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, or any of the top artists associated with the era. Some of the songs are certainly listenable, like “Kindergarten,” the lament sung late in Act Two by Martha (Katie Ladner), the fat girl everyone picks on, or “Seventeen,” about how hard it is to be that age, sung by Veronica (Barrett Wilbert Reed) and J.D. (Ryan McCartan, who, my companion rightly noted, slightly resembles a young, if less charismatic, Christopher Walken). But we also have to listen to “Blue,” a song about, let us say, testicular frustration, which has a reprise accusing Veronica of fellating two boys at once (the cocky lyric goes: “Sword-fighting in her mouth”).  There’s also “My Dead Gay Son,” in which two dads (Anthony Crivello and Daniel Cooney) come to terms with the revelation (false, by the way) that that their slain boys were homosexual, while realizing that they themselves are as well. Here’s where a “Hand Jive” would have come in handy.

From left: Elle McLemore, Barrett Wilbert Reed, Alice Lee, Jessica Keenan Wynn. Photo: Chad Batka.

The show faithfully follows the plot of the movie, which is itself an exaggerated, over-the-top depiction of high school life, and deals with a pretty but unpopular girl who uses her forgery skills to raise her popularity by joining the three-member mean girl clique known as the Heathers. There's  Heather Chandler (Jessica Keenan Wynn), the leader (who downs the drain cleaner); Heather McNamara (Elle McLemore), who later reveals suicidal thoughts; and Heather Duke (Alice Lee), the group bulimic. The familiar tropes of high school life unfold, including the unwanted incursions of a pair of thickheaded football jocks, Ram Sweeney (John Eidson) and Kurt Kelly (Evan Todd), who are responsible for much of the raunchier parts, and there’s the aforementioned fat girl, Martha Dunnstock, cruelly nicknamed Martha Dumptruck by her tormentors. HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL is “Glee” on slurpies (there’s actually a slurpie song advocating a drug-free way to tune out, “Freeze Your Brain”). 
 Jon Eidson. Photo: Chad Batka.

Is there a large enough cohort of HEATHERS fans out there to support this subversive view of high school life? Perhaps. But for me, it would need a better score, more appealing characters, and funnier jokes to help overcome the distaste produced by its toxic subject matter, satirical as its intent may be. Too often, when thinking about the show, I had the taste of drain cleaner in my mouth.

265. Review of A SECOND CHANCE (March 30, 2014)

This two-actor musical, by Ted Shen, starring the husband and wife team of Brian Sutherland and Diane Sutherland, is a bittersweet work about a couple of attractive, successful, well-dressed (by Susan Hilferty) middle-aged New Yorkers, Dan and Jenna. He’s recently widowed, she’s recently divorced. He lives in Brooklyn (always good for a laugh just by mentioning the place), she in Manhattan. They meet at a dinner party and hit it off, but neglect to take one another’s contact information. Not to worry. As in IF/THEN, they meet in the subway and reconnect. I wonder if, without the New York subway system, half the hookups in this town would ever happen. This time, if only barely, Dan gets Jenna’s number.

Brian Sutherland, Diane Sutherland. Photo: Joan Marcus.
            The show then follows their dating history, in which, except for a minor bump or two, the course of true love runs rather predictably. As the weeks and months go by, the times and places of their meetings are shown on projections. They start out at MOMA and ultimately end up in bed at Jenna’s place, with scenes in Central Park playing a part in their growing relationship. Although they’re in love, he’s conflicted because of his inability to shed his guilt at being attracted to another woman after the death of his wife of 25 years. She, too, has issues with her feelings, which she discusses at her therapist’s office, but neither has really deep problems.  Except for his difficulty in handling an encounter with old friends when he and Jenna run into them, which momentarily angers her, the piece just ambles along until its foreordained happy conclusion when they decide to take a second chance. This story, of course, has been done before, in one form or another, and there’s nothing here to get excited about. A recent French movie called DELICACY, starring Audrey Tatou, about a young widow who slowly and reluctantly falls in love with someone no one thinks is right for her (not the case in A SECOND CHANCE), does a much more amusing and touching job with related material.

            Stephen Sondheim’s influence is all over Mr. Shen’s music and lyrics, which come nowhere near the master’s in distinction. One song sounds pretty much like another, except for those few times when there’s a Latin or other recognizable flavoring. There is very little dialogue, this being essentially a sung-through show, which the two performers handle with professional aplomb, but, given the limitations of the material, not much more. The characters, well-spoken and cultured, experience what seem only mildly troubling emotions.

Robert Brill’s set is a floor of polished blonde wood, with a couple of white chairs and other minor pieces of furniture brought on when needed, and with only projection screens at the rear and either side for a background. The projections, designed by Rocco Disanti, are of black and white stills, some of them deliberately out of focus, and none of particular note. The show, which runs 90 minutes, could be 15 minutes shorter, but for some reason there’s an intermission.

            A SECOND CHANCE may have its problems, but Mr. Shen, a wealthy donor to musical theatre enterprises, will surely have a second chance to show what he can do.

264. Review of IF/THEN (March 29, 2014)

264. IF/THEN

If Idina Menzel weren’t starring in this new Broadway musical at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, there’d be little interest in seeing it. When the star makes her first appearance, there’s a cannonade of applause and shouts, even greater than when Denzel Washington enters in A RAISIN IN THE SUN, albeit under less auspicious applause-generating circumstances. Ms. Menzel’s fame, recently boosted by John Travolta’s mangling her name to Adele Dazeem (or Nazeem, according to your source), is certainly warranted, and she belts and acts her heart out in this mediocre show, so perhaps her star power will fuel it for a while. The fact that the work was loosely inspired by the experiences of Ms. Menzel and her costar, Anthony Rapp, with whom she first came to fame in RENT in 1996, makes her personal connection to the show that much greater, so one can only wish the result were something more substantial. Michael Greif, who directed the stars in RENT, is also responsible for IF/THEN, which has a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, a team best known for NEXT TO NORMAL.

Idina Menzel and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            The show’s conceit is similar to that in the 1999 Gwyneth Paltrow movie, SLIDING DOORS; in the film a woman’s future depends on whether she catches a train. If she does, her life will go in one direction, if not, in another. The story allows us to see what happens on each path. (A slightly related idea supports J.B. Priestley’s 1932 play, DANGEROUS CORNER, which shows what happens when someone makes a chance remark at a party. Toward the end, the action reverts to the moment when that remark was made, but now it’s not spoken and the action moves in a less eventful direction.) In IF/THEN, Mr. Yorkey’s book explores the ways in which chance and coincidence, choice and fate, alter our lives irrevocably by having Elizabeth’s career and romantic life move along two parallel paths. One is represented by her Beth persona (for which she wears glasses), the other by her Liz persona (no glasses).

Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            All takes place in an antiseptically appealing New York City, beginning with a scene in an idealized Madison Square Park that, with its blue cyclorama against which people and folding chairs are silhouetted, might just as easily be at the beach. This is one of those works about the city’s well-educated, sophisticated, attractive, young upward strivers. Elizabeth, who holds a Ph.D. in city planning, is a recently divorced woman nearing 40 who has moved to New York, where she puzzles strenuously over the life choices before her. As each of her potential lives is performed, the audience must take note as to which one it’s watching: in one Beth abandons romance (although wooed by her presumably bisexual friend, Lucas [Mr. Rapp], and her married boss [Jerry Dixon]) to become a powerhouse urban planner; in the other, Liz gives up her urban planning career to become a professor and marry Josh (James Snyder), a handsome doctor-soldier, with whom she has two kids. If she were to have it all, there’d be no show. The presence of her friend Lucas, a housing activist, and her lesbian friend Kate (LaChanze), a kindergarten teacher, complicate matters; the story becomes only fuzzier, as each of Elizabeth’s lives also means alterations in the lives of her friends—Kate with her lover (Jenn Colella) and Lucas with his (Jason Tam).

Idina Menzel, James Snyder. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            Like so many musicals today, the Sondheim influence is pervasive, both in the storytelling songs that move the action along, and in the dull melodies that underlie many (not all) of those songs and that mostly lack distinction. When Ms. Menzel suddenly launches into a song where she keeps asking, “What the Fuck?,” we get a breath of fresh air, even if at the expense of taste and plausibility. Of course, there’s a big 11 o’clock number, “Always Starting Over,” with which Ms. Menzel brings down the house, but it fails to save the show from a feeling of prefabrication.

LaChanze, Anthony Rapp. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that the plot was sketched out in workshops with suggestions from multiple contributors. Too many of the choices seem predictable.  There’s even a scene where, after Josh tries to pick Elizabeth up in the park and is more or less dismissed, he meets her on the subway some time later and the relationship picks up. The exact same thing happens in the new Off Broadway musical, A SECOND CHANCE, where it’s just as unsurprising. The show lacks edginess, tension, and suspense, and the characters are paper thin.

Of considerable value is Kenneth Posner’s lighting, which does its best to clarify which story line we’re watching, and Mark Wendland’s bi-level set, which allows for a huge mirror to hang at an angle over the proceedings so we can see the movement on the stage proper reflected overhead. This works very nicely during the scene in which the night sky is illuminated, a lovely effect even if so common this season someone could write a term paper on the many ways to show a starlit sky.

The performers are all at the top of their game, LaChanze being a charming standout among the supporting players. The sole reason to visit IF/THEN is Idina Menzel. If that’s what you’re after then you’ll enjoy the show. The choice is yours to make.

263. Review of I REMEMBER MAMA (March 26, 2014)


When I was growing up in the early 1950s, a time when family members watched the same shows together on the single TV set most families owned, one of everybody’s favorites was “Mama,” a weekly show that ran from 1949 to 1957 on CBS. The eponymous star was the great stage actress Peggy Wood, playing the Norwegian immigrant Marta Hansen, matriarch of a San Francisco family whose lives in San Francisco in the 1910s had been immortalized by the family’s eldest daughter, Katrin (known as Kathryn Forbes), in her best-selling fictionalized memoir, Mama’s Bank Account. This, in turn, became a Broadway hit (714 performances) in a 1944 adaptation by British dramatist John Van Druten, starring Mady Christians; the production was the first of many works produced by the composer and lyricist, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.  An excellent movie version arrived in 1948, starring the wonderful Irene Dunne. Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut as Marta’s 15-year-old, Nels, in Van Druten’s play. A 1979 musical version of the play, starring Liv Ullman, was a flop.

Barbara Andres, Barbara Barrie. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            Each episode of the TV series began with Katrin reciting the following words as she looked through a family album: “This old album makes me remember so many things in the past. San Francisco and the house on Steiner Street where I was born. It brings back memories of my cousins, aunts, and uncles; all the boys and girls I grew up with. And I remember my family as we were then. My brother Nels, my little sister Dagmar, and of course, Papa. But most of all when I look back to those days so long ago, most of all, I remember . . . Mama.” The show would then segue into that particular episode’s story. These words are a much shorter version of those that begin the play, where the next to last sentence is, “But first and foremost, I remember Mama,” followed by an expository line about recalling Mama counting out Papa’s money, from his earnings as a carpenter, at the kitchen table every Saturday night. Mama, as I described her in my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage: 1940-1950, is a “resourceful wife, cook, banker, housekeeper, friend, nurse, and guardian,” who keeps “everyone happy and secure in good times and bad.”

            Even hearing the play’s altered words, read by the eternally delightful Barbara Barrie, gave me a nostalgic thrill when I visited the curiously wonderful revival of Van Druten’s highly episodic (30 scenes) old chestnut being presented in the expanse of the Judson Gym near NYU.  The audience sits in one or two rows around the edges of the room, facing a sea of ten dining room tables, each with its own artfully arranged props, books here, silverware there, glassware here, typewriters there, napkins here, curio boxes there. Seated at each table is a veteran actress, most of them with hair in shades of gray, silver, and white, but with a smattering of red and blonde mixed in. (There’ll be no snarky comments on the authenticity of those colors.)

            Having heard that this production would be performed by 10 actresses, some of them more widely familiar than others but all well known to the theatre community, I thought that I was in for some sort of god-awful conceptual production in which a wiseass director was going to deconstruct and de-sentimentalize the play. But I was wrong. Jack Cummings III, artistic director of the Transport Group, which is responsible for this throat-lumping revival, has been absolutely faithful to Van Druten’s play, even though his cast of 10 plays all 25 roles in it (22 actors were in the original staging).

The dining room tables and chairs scattered about the room, each of them different, become a metaphor for family life, and are the only scenery provided, as the actors rise and enter the action as needed, or else sit and watch, patiently awaiting their next entrance or speech. While one table serves as the main family gathering place, others become neutral spaces associated with wherever the action happens to have moved—another room, a hospital, wherever. The actors occasionally move to other tables, but mainly remain where they were at the beginning. They wear contemporary casual clothing of sweaters, jeans, and slacks, although Barbara Andres, as Mama, wears a loose fitting, simple black dress with a gray sweater. For those actors playing multiple roles, a slight vocal or physical alteration is enough to suggest the essence of the character they’re playing, and there's never a moment when it’s not clear who is who—a process helped enormously, of course, by the narrative insertions of Katrin (Ms. Barrie), whose reminiscences are the basis of the play.

I can’t praise the ensemble nature of the performance highly enough; even thinking back on it days later, my eyes moisten and my heart thumps with affection for these grand dames whose accumulated stage years come to around 500, which is how old Noah was when he built the ark. In addition to Ms. Andres and Barrie, there are Alice Cannon in three roles, including Aunt Jenny; Lynn Cohen as both Mr. Hyde, the Hansen’s British boarder, a former actor who reads to the family nightly, and the cantankerous Uncle Chris; Rita Gardner, mainly as Aunt Trina, the spinster who finds a husband; Susan Lehman as Aunt Sigrid and two others; Heather MacRae as both Nels, Katrin’s brother, who wants to be a doctor, and Mr. Thorkelson; Phyllis Somerville, in three roles but mainly as Dagmar, the youngest daughter, who wants to be a veterinarian; Louise Sorel as Christine, the middle daughter, and F.D. Moorhead, the famous writer convinced by Mama to read something Katrin has written; and Dale Soules, as Papa, and two other male roles. I will not single anyone out because each is perfection itself, whether it be in the role of a boy, a girl, a doctor, a gossipy relative, a father, a lover, or a dying old man.  

Mr. Cummings’s unusual production subverts our understanding of theatre by casting talented actresses, aged 67 to 82 (Ms. Barrie, if you must know), to play a gamut of characters only a few of whom come close to them in age, and many of them being male instead of female. Yet there is not a smidgen of overacting, or indicating, or any of the conventional techniques one might imagine most performers would resort to in order to embody characters so ostensibly different from themselves. The overall tone is remarkably restrained, natural, and honest. You will not hear a false note in the slightly two hours-plus production, although, because of the large space, you may have lean in to catch every word spoken around a table at the other end of the room. The concentration on what the characters are saying forces you to listen closely to the dialogue, and you ultimately hear this play even more than you see it; in fact, you even begin to forget the silver threads among the gold, as well as their modern clothes, and to see within them the characters they’re playing. This adds an immeasurably rich patina to their performances that breaks your heart by the contrast between the remembered youth of the actors (or those you may remember) and the current signs of their maturity.

For an idea of how the play was received in 1944, allow me to quote again from my encyclopedia entry:

It was widely appreciated that van Druten had respected the form of the original book. “His play is the theatre equivalent of a book of short stories, rather than the theatre equivalent of a novel,” approved Rosamond Gilder (Theatre Arts Monthly). . . . To Burton Rascoe (New York World Telegram), it was “breathtakingly beautiful. . . . It is not a great drama . . . but it is superb theatre.” “The evening provides the sheerest, tenderest joy of the new season,” exclaimed John Mason Brown (Saturday Review). But George Jean Nathan (Theatre Book of the Year) objected to the narrator device, which he found shopworn and unnecessary. . . . He was impressed, however, by the author-director’s simplicity and delicate restraint. “Episode after episode . . . is dramatically manipulated in its own artless terms and never once is there resort to an overemphasis which would play havoc with its simple internals.”

I feel much the same way as these reviewers, although Nathan’s remark about the narrator doesn’t convince me. The convention is still widely used, and has to be judged for its value in each instance. Otherwise, the play comes through with humor, pathos, love, and sweetness; it is rarely cloying, but always engrossing. The director’s concept strips away the period trappings to reveal the universality of the characters, and not so specific to a time and place that we might easily dismiss nostalgically as “the good old days.” Mr. Cummings’s staging of I REMEMBER MAMA pays tribute to the virtues of traditional family life and love in a way I will long remember, as will you if you’re wise enough to see it.

Friday, March 28, 2014

262. Review of KING LEAR (March 25, 2014)


That grizzled old monarch, King Lear, who foolishly gave his kingdom to his two unloving daughters and disinherited the one that truly loved him is back in downtown Brooklyn, right across the street from where he visited us earlier in the winter (it may now be spring, but it still feels like winter). In January he took the form of a tall, hulking, force of nature, in the person of 75-year-old American superstar Frank Langella; now he’s been incarnated as the slighter, and a bit younger (70) Michael Pennington, not a superstar, perhaps, but still one of England’s most highly respected classical actors. Brooklyn is proud to be the showcase for his first Lear, even before he ever attempts it in England.

Michael Pennington, Rachel Pickup. Photo: Carol Rosegg.  

The talented Arin Arbus directs Mr. Pennington in this latest revival of KING LEAR, with a supporting cast of mostly American actors (a few Brits are present as well), practically all of whom speak Shakespeare’s lines with English accents. Although Mr. Langella’s production avoided elaborate sets, it was like the Ziegfeld Follies compared to Mr. Pennington’s stripped- down edition, with designer Riccardo Hernandez providing only an occasional chair or small table for furniture, so that the action can be totally focused on the actors. Of course, there’s a heavy reliance on strikingly atmospheric lighting (Marcus Doshi), dynamic sound (Nicholas Pope and Michaël Attias), and haunting music (Mr. Attias), but, unlike the Langella version, there’s no actual deluge during the storm scene. The set is little more than a rectangular floor suggesting tarnished metal, with a similarly tarnished and unadorned upstage wall that leans forward as the play progresses, and, like the bridge of a moat, is gradually let all the way down at the end, revealing a scarily lit, box-like room inside.  
Bianca Amato, Michael Pennington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Ms. Arbus’s production goes light on cleverness for its own sake and there's very little that is interpretively unusual. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are in the familiar mode of early 20th-century militarism, even those worn by Regan and Goneril, and all are in earth tones of brown, rust, black, and green. One novel touch, although possibly seen in some other production, is introduced when Oswald (Mark H. Dold) and Goneril (Rachel Pickup) enter while tidying up their clothes after some presumed offstage hanky panky, suggesting that Goneril’s steward is also her lover. The characterizations of all the leads, including Kent (Timothy D. Stickney), Gloucester (Christopher McCann), Edmund (Chandler Williams), Regan (Bianca Amato), Cordelia (Lilly Englert), Edgar (Jacob Fishel), and the Fool (Jake Horowitz) aren’t notably different from those in most standard productions; most (I take exception to the Fool, probably a hopeless role, at any rate) are well acted and intelligently spoken, which is about as much as you can hope for in any revival of the play.

Jacob Fishel, Michael Pennington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lily Englert, Michael Pennington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Mr. Pennington’s Lear is more down to earth and recognizably human than Mr. Langella’s, which had a more grandiose and theatrical flair. His opening scene, when he divides his kingdom, using a small map on a narrow tabletop, is brisk and businesslike, and his reaction to Cordelia’s behavior makes him so convincingly disappointed that we wonder why, in all this man’s life, he never before had occasion to notice his daughter’s independent spirit and refusal to kowtow to his power. Shakespeare has created this problem for Lear, and making his response seem plausible is probably an insurmountable task for any actor; Mr. Pennington comes close to making us feel that, perhaps, he’ll come around and see the light. His long scene with Goneril and Regan about how many men they’ll allow him to keep excellently conveys his frustration and disgruntlement. At the end of the play, reduced to a shell of the man he once was, Mr. Pennington touches all the right buttons of pathos and grief.
Lily Englert, Michael Pennington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

This is a commendable, well spoken, effectively staged KING LEAR. It is in no way groundbreaking or unusual, but can easily be recommended to those who’ve never seen the play. Seeing it in the intimate three-quarters round environment of the TFNA gives it an immediacy that enhances its power. It would now be nice to give this play a rest, but, as the gods would have it, John Lithgow is gearing up to do it this summer in Central Park. It's enough to make you leery of yet another KING LEAR.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

261. Review of APPROPRIATE (March 26, 2014)



A stage filled with the accumulated junk of a lifetime greets the audience attending Branden Jacob-Jenkins uneven but frequently compelling new dramedy, APPROPRIATE, at the Griffin Theatre in the Pershing Square Signature Theatre. (It premiered at Louisville’s Humana Festival and was also produced by the Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago.) Soon they will be confronted by a lifetime of another kind of accumulated junk, the ill feelings harbored by each member of a dysfunctional family for one another. As in plays by such well-known dramatists as Horton Foote and Tracy Letts, these feelings emerge when the family in question, the Lafayettes, assemble at their southeast Arkansas ancestral home one summer night to divvy up the estate left by their late father, Ray.
From left: Johanna Day, Michael Laurence, Patch Daragh, Maddie Corman.

Ray was a Collyer brothers-like hoarder over the past two decades of his life, so designer Clint Ramos (who also designed the costumes)—and a busy prop coordinator—has fun filling up the decrepit plantation mansion with all the detritus he collected; Ray’s oldest child, Toni (Johanna Day), has been carrying everything down from the second story bedrooms into the living room to make sleeping space upstairs for her arriving brother and his family, and to prepare for the estate sale that’s planned to help pay off their father’s debts and provide some income for his descendants. Here, surrounded by the piles of toys, boxes, linens, family portraits, knickknacks, clothes, books, and other family debris, the sparks of familial angst begin to fly as brother Bo (Michael Laurence), expected, and brother Frank (Patch Daragh), unexpected and now calling himself Franz, appear.

Bo is accompanied by his 13-year-old daughter, Cassidy (Izzy Hanson-Johnston), who keeps insisting that she’s “almost an adult” when her parents try to stop her ears and eyes from things being said and shown; his 8-year-old boy, Ainsley (Alex Dreier), running riot through the rotting old house in his Spiderman pajamas; and his whiny wife, Rachael (Maddie Corman), whom Toni can't stand. Frank, a convicted pedophile striving to reform, arrives uninvited) with his 23-year-old hippie girlfriend, River (Sonya Harum), who mingles New Age comments with intelligence and good intentions (both her parents are lawyers). Filling out the picture is Rhys (Mike Faist), Toni’s teenage son, who got in trouble for selling drugs, which led to his mother’s dismissal as principal of his school.

Toni, who can’t keep her bile down, is unhappy at Rhys’s decision to move in with his father, who recently walked out on her. The rising pile of emotional crap in her system comes spewing forth once she has her family as targets, and she’s especially pissed off by Rachael, who claims that an overheard reference to her by Ray as “Bo’s Jew wife” marked him as an anti-Semite. When the going really gets tough, the volcano erupts and a second act donnybrook of epic proportions (terrifically staged by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet) spreads a torrent of kicks, punches, and hair-pulling lava all over the stage.

The house itself is a character of sorts, and gets to do some show-offy acting of its own, as are the summertime cicadas—an insect that emerges only every 13 years—whose insistent and eerie chirping (sound design by Broken Chord) is heard in the darkness for a long stretch before the play proper begins; their slightly scary presence remains a constant, even earning a place of honor in the dialogue.

Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American playwright lately gaining much attention, throws these people together in a first act filled with vitriolic confrontations and recriminations based on the revelation of one family issue after the other, but the catalyst for the greatest amount of anger and bewilderment is the discovery of an album owned by Ray containing vintage photos showing black people being lynched. Ghosts of the past haunt the place, which is right next to a cemetery, with a slave burial ground also close by, thereby complicating the prospective sale of the house, whose proceeds the family has been looking forward to. Those graveyards may be causing more damage even than that.

The family considers itself anything but racist, and struggles to tie their memories of their father to anything that would explain his possession of the album, the possibility of selling it, although the sudden appearance of little Ainsley in a KKK hood he found would seem to settle matters regarding Ray's inclinations. Nevertheless, when the album turns out to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to interested collectors, it acts as a stimulant to the otherwise self-righteous Bo, whose New York job in magazine publishing is beginning to look iffy. We see how, despite all of Bo and his family’s disavowals of racism, the idea of making a bundle by selling these horrific pictures for someone’s private entertainment seems completely reasonable to them.

The first act is filled with lots of shouted recriminations, but Act Two, which begins after the set has been cleared of most of the junk, leaving what remains neatly arranged, is quieter and not as interesting, although it’s also when the big fight breaks out, among other disturbing events (such as Frank accidentally seeing Rhys masturbating and thinking his turn-on is the album). But it does give us a chance to see the family in a more restrained mood (if only temporarily) and to listen to their problems (including Frank’s desperate attempt to change the course of his life) without holding our ears.

Under Liesl Tommy’s swiftly paced direction, the acting, even when loud, is generally convincing (I liked Johanna Day’s feisty Toni best), although the characters are mostly unlikable. They walk a fine line between being recognizable human beings and Southern Gothic grotesques and, especially in Act One, their constant acrimony makes them boorish to the point of boredom. My companion (a veteran actress) noted, interestingly, the lack of connection the actors had with the assortment of family items surrounding them. Everything was just “there,” without any visceral connection to it. Still, there’s a certain fascination in watching such people interact, especially when each of them is able to find some justification in their behavior, no matter how distasteful or ludicrous it may appear to observers.

When the last character has exited, the play is not yet over, as ghostly presences (hinted at earlier) take control of the house, and, in several brief sequences separated by blackouts, make themselves known as the joint begins to crumble before our eyes. The special effects (aided by Lap Chi Chu’s lighting) are well done, and add a theatrical fillip to the performance.

APPROPRIATE may not be to everyone’s taste, but to someone who’s sat through 260 productions thus far this season, it makes for a much more appropriate theatrical experience than the vast bulk of what’s been out there thus far. Even the cicadas seemed to realize this.

260. Review of HELLMAN VS. McCARTHY (March 21, 2014)



In January 1980 novelist, critic, and journalist Mary McCarthy appeared on Dick Cavett’s PBS talk show and was asked by the host to cite who she felt were bad writers. After dismissing John Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck, she zeroed in on famed playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman, whose most important plays included THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, THE LITTLE FOXES, and WATCH ON THE RHINE. When asked why, McCarthy declared that Hellman was a “liar” and said that everything Hellman wrote was a falsehood, “including the words ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman was so offended she immediately called her lawyer and told him to sue McCarthy. She refused Cavett’s offer to come on his show and rebut McCarthy’s claim. Hellman sued McCarthy for $2,225,000 in damages, not to mention suits filed against Cavett and Channel 13. The wealthy Hellman could afford to pursue her suit, but McCarthy, much less deep pocketed, was nearly bankrupted. The case was highly controversial because many considered it an attack on free speech, despite Hellman’s status as a liberal.

Marcia Rodd, Dick Cavett. Photo: Kim T. Sharp.
            The 74-year-old Hellman, frail, and suffering from numerous ailments, was notorious for her temper and angry outbursts, not to mention her sailor’s vocabulary, while McCarthy was famous for her biting critical reviews. The women had a history of bad feeling, partly because of McCarthy’s displeasure (shared by many in the anti-Communist liberal intellectual community) with Hellman’s tacit support of the USSR and Stalinist practices. Cavett’s question to McCarthy ignited an explosive keg of ire that was only subdued when Hellman died, four years after initiating her law suit.

            Brian Richard Mori has turned this fascinating feud into a viable 90-minute play, now at the Abingdon Theatre, fictionalizing certain aspects and even creating an encounter between Hellman and McCarthy. He’s changed the names of the lawyers involved (Joseph Rauh represented Hellman, for example, not someone called Lester Marshall), and added a gay male nurse, Ryan Hobbs (Rowan Michael Meyer) to be Hellman’s constant helpmate and provide not only some gay-oriented quips but to act as a backboard against which Hellman can lob cutting comments demonstrating her dismissive sarcasm.

Rowan Michael Meyer, Roberta Maxwell. Photo: Kim T. Sharp.
            A sleek and neutral set, designed by Andrew Lu, serves as the interior of Hellman’s home and, with a curtain drawn partway across the stage, as the TV studio; it allows the action to move inexorably forward, with the actual Dick Cavett, still hale at 78, playing himself as he was in the early 1980s and serving as a sort of interlocutor for today’s audience. (At the end of the play, he takes questions from the audience about the events enacted.) Roberta Maxwell, not far in age from Hellman’s when the events took place, is a suitable choice for Hellman, although Hellman in her 70s was far less pleasant looking and had a much raspier voice. (Ms. Maxwell was wearing a blue foot cast the night I saw the show; since she wore it throughout it seemed the result of a personal condition, not one belonging to Hellman.) Ms. Maxwell finds most of the unpleasant aspects of Hellman’s persona to play upon, and makes the character appropriately human and believable, but not as vitriolic as one imagines Hellman to have been. Hellman’s chain-smoking is only suggested, a necessary concession, perhaps, to Ms. Maxwell’s health, even with herbal or e-cigarettes. Marcia Rodd’s McCarthy is smart and attractive, and provides a convincingly worthy opponent in the writers’ war of words.  

Peter Brouwer, Jeff Woodman, Marcia Rodd. Photo: Kim T. Sharp.

           The lawyers representing Hellman and McCarthy, played by Peter Brouwer and Jeff Woodman, are effective, but Mr. Meyers’s male nurse is a gay stereotype. Jan Buttram’s direction adds some nice touches to the TV studio opening, with cameramen and technicians creating the sense of an actual broadcast about to happen, but the slow pacing and lack of tension in many scenes must also be laid at her feet. Stronger direction might have given the play the tiger’s bite it often seemed to lack.

            In general, HELLMAN VS. MCCARTHY is pretty faithful to the facts, especially as they’re presented in William Wright’s masterful Hellman biography, Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman, but the playwright goes a bit too far in conjuring up the scene between McCarthy and Hellman. This is, arguably, the most interesting part of the play, with McCarthy ostensibly visiting Hellman to apologize but finding herself engaged in a battle of spiteful invective instead. Only after it’s over does Mr. Cavett appear to tell us that the meeting never happened, deflating its impact. Of course, Schiller did the same thing in MARIA STUART, but the historical distance involved between his fictional scene between Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth gave him some leeway; Mr. Mori’s events are too recent, and too well known (to some audience members, at least) to allow for similar liberties. If you know in advance the scene is fictional, you sit through it waiting to see if it’s acknowledged.

            There’s also insufficient information provided to justify McCarthy’s charges. A cottage industry of fact-checkers grew up while the law case was in progress detailing all the misrepresentations of the truth in Hellman’s writings, but only a passing bit about the questions raised by her famous story about the woman named Julia is introduced, leaving the audience unsure of the validity of McCarthy’s accusations. Even a program note would be useful.

            Still, the feud makes for compelling drama, the characters are vivid enough to hold our attention, and the play, for all my reservations, is worthy of consideration.   

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

259. TALES FROM RED VIENNA (March 23, 2014)



The knowledge that Nina Arianda, so brilliant in VENUS IN FURS (which I saw) and BORN YESTERDAY (which I missed), was starring in David Grimm’s new play, TALES FROM RED VIENNA, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage 1, was made even more exciting by the show’s alluring publicity photo of her in a widow’s veil. Unfortunately, the photo is far more glamorous than the role she plays in this disappointing drama set in 1920 Vienna, where Ms. Arianda’s character, Heléna Altman, an aristocrat whose husband, Karl Hupka, was reported killed at Ypres during World War II, is forced to turn to prostitution to survive. The wordless first scene of the play, which takes place behind a sheer, dark curtain in the threadbare apartment she’s been forced to move to with her elderly, commonsense housekeeper, Edda Schmidt (Kathleen Chalfant), shows her clearly reluctant encounter on a tabletop with a bearded client. This gent will turn out to be Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper), a young Hungarian journalist and acquaintance of a more fortunate aristocratic woman, the snooty gossip Mutzi von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), who is herself in an unhappy marriage. Later, when Béla learns who Heléna is, he becomes her conflicted suitor (one who, because of the social rot he partly represents, gives her a snort of cocaine). Béla, a committed Marxist socialist, also represents the contemporary political regime, which was briefly under the control of the social democrats, thus giving the play the color in its title, and which deprived aristocrats like Mutzi of their former status. It's too bad that the political background of the play remains just that, background.
Nina Arianda, Michael Esper. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            TALES FROM RED VIENNA, flatly staged by Kate Whoriskey, appears at first to be an historical drama exposing the social corruption in Austria’s postwar society, when numerous newly impoverished women, many from the middle and upper classes, found themselves in Heléna’s predicament; it isn’t long before it goes off track and becomes conventional romantic wiener schnitzel, with a dramatic twist at the end of Act Two signaled by the arrival of the mysterious Karl Hupka (Lucas Hall). This ultimately turns the three-act play (remember them?) into a variation on A DOLL’S HOUSE, except that it’s not the woman who walks out the door at the end.
Kathleen Chalfant, Nina Arianda. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            Some topicality--the theme of anti-Semitism--is introduced by Rudy Zuckermayer (overacted by Michael Goldsmith), a Jewish boy infatuated with Heléna, while an attempt at comedy is provided by Edda, the wise old housekeeper, some of whose would-be laughs stem from her fondness for a nip or two, others from anachronistic cracks like, “Now you’ve given him a stiffy.” Ms. Chalfant, normally one of New York’s most dependable character actresses, is unable to make a real person out of the role; for one thing, she wears even more makeup than Ms. Arianda.  

Very little rings true, either in the acting (Ms. Benko comes closest), the dialogue, or the characters, and the old-fashioned plot development that justifies Act Three is highly questionable. The sense of period authenticity is limited to the snatches of Viennese waltzes we hear (courtesy of sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen), Anita Yavich’s lovely costumes (although the impoverished Helena and Edda wear clothes that are far too neat and fine looking), and John Lee Beatty’s two sets, one showing Heléna’s living room, and one the cemetery where, implausibly, Heléna spends Act Two, near the grave of her husband. Neither is up to Mr. Beatty’s usual standard (as is, for example, his just-opened MOTHERS AND SONS).

By the time the play has run its course after two and a half hours, so has our patience with TALES FROM RED VIENNA, a stale piece of strudel from playwright Grimm.